Biden (and Trump) did the right thing on Afghanistan

The war was lost long ago — if it was ever winnable

Watching Donald Trump in action over the past five years has given many people an opportunity to appreciate certain positive qualities in George W. Bush that they may not have seen at the time or may have forgotten during the unraveling of his presidency during his final three years in office. But the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan this week and the Taliban conquest of Kabul illustrates, once again, the peculiarly bad nature of the Bush presidency.

This badness stems not from him having been the worst person to hold the office, nor even necessarily from his ideas being particularly rotten.

But 9/11 and the public reaction to 9/11 that sent Bush’s approval rating soaring ended up giving him an unusually large amount of freedom of action for a modern president. Obviously, any president would have responded to those attacks with some kind of use of military force. But the public was open to all kinds of approaches, the international community was open to all kinds of approaches, and America was not seriously checked by any kind of rival powers. There was a lot you could have done. And what he happens to have chosen to do worked out very poorly. And while it took over a decade after his departure from office for the mess he made of things to unravel, I don’t think it makes any sense to look at the choices that faced Trump during his term or Biden faced these past few months without the Bush-era context.

The halfway war

Since the Taliban was never the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan, one totally plausible approach to 9/11 would have been a fast military action aimed at killing top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, putting the Afghan opposition coalition back in charge of Kabul, and then basically leaving them to figure things out.

Another approach would have been to try to really commit wholeheartedly to the U.S.-led reconstruction of Afghanistan — to go all-in on what was called at the time “nation-building.”

The Bush administration didn’t want to take what was behind door number two for basically two reasons. One was that they were skeptical of the odds of success in a massive rebuilding effort. But the second and more important reason is that they wanted to invade Iraq. When 9/11 happened, American military preparedness was based around the 1-4-2-1 doctrine. The first 1 was the defense of the homeland. The 4 is to deter enemies in four key regional theaters. Then the 2-1 meant, to quote Fred Kaplan, that “the U.S. armed forces must have the strength to win swiftly in two near-simultaneous conflicts in those regions. The final 1 means that we must win one of those conflicts ‘decisively,’ toppling the enemy’s regime.”

So basically do a regime change operation in Iraq while also helping South Korea win a war against North Korea.

In other words, Bush had to choose. Either Iraq or Afghanistan could be War Number One, but they couldn’t both be. He chose Iraq. That should have implied taking the quick-and-dirty approach to the war in Afghanistan. But Osama bin Laden got away at Tora Bora, so the quick-and-dirty war lacked an emotionally and politically satisfying endpoint.

Given that context, he made a very fateful choice that has haunted us ever since. He adopted the expansive nation-building goal but deliberately turned the war into an economy of resources effort in order to devote maximum resources to War Number One against Saddam Hussein. But then of course he didn’t level with the public that this is what he was doing. And even though the war was sidelined in terms of American resources, it nevertheless was shot-through with maximalist goals.

A war of hubris

In December of 2001, as the Taliban were about to be forced out of Kandahar, they offered to surrender to the United States on the condition that their then-leader Mullah Omar be allowed to retire and “live in dignity” in Kandahar. The United States rejected this offer out of hand, believing that the Taliban wasn’t trustworthy and that Omar should be treated as an unlawful combatant and not someone worthy of an honorable surrender.

This was hardly an indefensible position for the Bush administration to take. But it was a kind of crazy position for them to take given that they themselves were not in fact committed to a maximum effort in Afghanistan. If you failed to kill or capture Osama bin Laden but would like a face-saving opportunity to declare victory and go home (or in this case, invade Iraq) then the enemy offering to surrender is a pretty good opportunity. Alternatively, if you want to hold out for total victory and unconditional surrender, you probably shouldn’t start a second war that takes up the bulk of your forces.

But the whole time that the United States was deciding against a total commitment to Afghanistan, we were also getting weirdly prescriptive about the details of Afghan politics. During the 2002 Loya Jirga to decide on the future of Afghanistan, there was a stampede of Pashto delegates looking to bring back the old king as head of state. The United States intervened forcefully to veto that idea and insist instead on Hamid Karzai. What’s more, even though international best practices are to create new parliamentary regimes (despite having a presidential system ourselves, that’s what we did in Germany, Japan, Italy, Austria, and Iraq), we backed Karzai’s insistence on creating a strong presidency.

Now I don’t want to say that the Afghan government failed because it had Hamid Karzai as a Madisonian president rather than Mohammed Zahir Shah as constitutional monarch of a parliamentary system. The point is that we were adopting fairly maximalist political goals at the exact same time we were backing away from an extensive military commitment to achieving those goals. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work.

A tale of two surges

By the time Barack Obama took over, the basic pattern that would dominate years of failure was already in place. The Taliban was not crushed and had in fact established itself as a viable religious/nationalist resistance movement to the American-backed government. And the American-backed government was very corrupt and ineffective, displeasing lots of people and committing lots of abuses.

This put the American forces serving in Afghanistan in a lot of awkward situations.

In 2015, the New York Times ran a story headlined “U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies.” It says about what you’d think. Then in 2018, the Times did a story headlined “Afghan Pedophiles Get Free Pass From U.S. Military, Report Says.”

The capture of Kabul has naturally led to a lot of comparisons to the war in Vietnam. But the comparison is in key respects inapt. North Vietnam was receiving substantial material support from the USSR throughout the whole war just as the anti-Soviet mujahedeen were supported by the United States in the 1980s. We never should have sent all those soldiers to Vietnam, but it would be genuinely unreasonable to expect the South Vietnamese government to be able to prevail without any kind of help at all.

By contrast, the Taliban got modest amounts of help from Pakistan, which is hardly the world’s mightiest nation. There’s just no obvious reason why they would be an unstoppable fighting force (they are actually quite awful as you have probably heard), but the government Karzai put together was a total disaster.

The military sold the then-new president Barack Obama on the idea that Bush had just bungled this and he could be the hero who saved Afghanistan. The idea was to send a huge surge of troops into the country, win back territory from the Taliban, and then force them to the negotiating table on favorable terms. It didn’t work, and then years later the military sold the then-new president Donald Trump on the idea that Obama had just bungled this and he could be the hero who saved Afghanistan. The idea was to do a modest surge of troops and a huge increase in airstrikes, win back territory from the Taliban, and then force them to the negotiating table on favorable terms.

That also didn’t work, but my strong guess is that if Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg were in the White House, they would’ve been sold on the idea that Trump just bungled this and they could be the hero who saved Afghanistan. Biden, because he was around for the Obama-era surge debate, knew the game and pulled the plug.

Hawk fallacies

Obviously, it is embarrassing to the U.S. government to watch the speed with which the Afghan government collapsed once U.S. troops left.

But I think this has led hawks to propound several fallacies.

One is the idea that the light footprint we had on the ground right before the Taliban’s final push would have been sufficient to save the Afghan government. The very speed of the collapse says the opposite. The Taliban were taking it easy while American troops packed up. Had they stayed, the offensive would have come anyway. The Taliban would have advanced more slowly, but they would have advanced. And it’s not like the Biden administration would leave 3,000 soldiers trapped in Afghanistan to be killed or captured — they’d be reinforced. That was the policy choice, to continue with Trump’s withdrawal plan or to escalate.

Another fallacy is to make Biden look bad by saying “well you may agree with the policy, but the execution of the policy here was a mess.” And certainly, the execution doesn’t look great. But the reason it’s such a mess is that the policy is one that the military has been revolting against across two presidents, and they were hoping as recently as last Thursday or Friday to jam Biden up into sending more troops.

The final fallacy is to cite the speed of the collapse as evidence that Biden misjudged the situation, when really it’s evidence that the underlying mission was a horrific failure. If we left and then never lifted a finger as the Taliban mounted a painstakingly slow 10-year campaign to oust the government, I think a reasonable person might think one more year of American presence might have made a difference. But what we saw this week was that in 20 years, essentially zero progress had been made toward creating a sustainable Afghan military.

A useful signal to allies

I think the very worst argument made by hawks is that withdrawing from Afghanistan is bad because it hurts our credibility with allies in Asia and Europe.

The truth is just the opposite. Alliances are good, but alliances between a very big country and a smaller country naturally generate free-rider problems. If the smaller country believes to absolute certainty that the bigger country will come to its defense, then the smaller country has no incentive to invest in its own defense. And we see this in the real world. Our European allies spend a much smaller share of GDP on defense than we do. That arguably reflects a sensible assessment on their part that the security environment is fairly benign. But Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all spend a smaller share of GDP on national defense than we do, and the threat environment there is not at all benign.

And this is genuinely bad for the United States. We absolutely should help South Korea defend itself against aggression from the North, and we should help Taiwan and Japan too. But it’s much easier for us to help those countries the more they do for themselves. And they should be major defense spenders. Obviously, Taiwan can’t “beat China in a war” in the sense of a board game like Risk no matter what they spend. But launching amphibious assaults is really hard. “We are going to invest in defense that makes the cost of invading Taiwan prohibitive” is a totally reasonable goal that Taiwan is not really pursuing, preferring to count on an American security guarantee.

I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan! And the good news is all these countries we’re talking about are a hundred times more functional than the state Karzai created, and there is every reason to think they could be impressive partners.